Over thirty years ago, the celebrated American statistician, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, taught us that the answer to quality was tapping into the problem-solving talents of ordinary employees throughout the organization. Why has it taken us so long to figure out that innovation should be approached the same way?
by Rowan Gibson
For a great part of the Industrial Revolution, companies believed that the way to drive up productivity and efficiency was to steadily reduce the discretionary decision-making power of first-line employees. The idea was that it was the “expert” who was paid to think, and to figure out how a particular job should be done. Ordinary workers, on the other hand, were paid to “do”; they were given lock-step procedures to follow, and were expected to carry them out blindly and without questioning.
Then, in a radical departure from that paradigm, Deming and others came along and said that management should teach first-level employees about statistical process control; that they should actually unleash people’s discretionary decision-making power; that doing so would deliver a positive return on investment. Thus, the quality movement was born, initially heralding Japan’s rapid economic rise, and later revolutionizing the relationship between American manufacturers and consumers.
Ultimately, it wasn’t companies that improved product quality and customer satisfaction to previously unheard-of levels; it was their people. It was ordinary employees who made the quality movement happen. Likewise, it is ordinary employees who can make innovation happen, but only if the companies they work for are willing to unleash the power of their imaginations – only if these companies make a concerted effort to teach and encourage their people to be innovators.
Is that really possible? Think about it for a moment. By definition, anything that was made by human beings can be changed by human beings. If we were capable of inventing the modern industrial organization, then we are also capable of reinventing it. Sure, big organizations are often parochial, arrogant and overly bureaucratic. But, with some help, they can become curious, experimental and resilient. Even gigantic, hundred-year-old corporations – like General Electric and Procter &Gamble – have wholeheartedly taken on this challenge, and they are already achieving extraordinary results. If companies like these can make the transition, so can yours.